Prior censorship of the press has become routine in the tense political situation and self-censorship has increased.

The authorities used the excuse of fighting terrorism to step up arrests of Islamists in 2003. About 30 people were charged in early May with "plotting against the state," the Islamist weekly Arraya was shut down and one of its journalists imprisoned. An attempted military coup on 8 June and the presidential election on 7 November also affected press freedom. The ministry of the interior, posts and telecommunications frequently used article 11 of the 1991 press law to impose strict prior censorship and close many newspapers, which increased self-censorship and weakened the independent press.

Before publication, all papers must send a copy to the ministry, which then gives permission for distribution and sale which, under article 11, can be banned if the contents "undermine Islamic values, the government's reputation, the public interest or law and order." The ministry does not have to give an explanation. Article 11 was especially used at the time of the election, when candidates were not given equal access to the state-run media. President Maaouya ould Sid'Ahmed Taya was reelected after a turbulent campaign and controversial voting.

A journalist imprisoned

Sid'Amar Ould Cheikhna, of the Islamist weekly Arraya, was arrested in a police crackdown on 5 May 2003 among Islamic fundamentalists. A fellow prisoner, since released, said he was interrogated about his writings and some sermons he had delivered in mosques. He was held at the police college in Nouakchott until 4 June and then transferred to the city's Beyla prison. He was freed on the day of the 8 June attempted coup.

His lawyer said he was kidnapped by police on 7 August and held at the police station in Tofragh Zeina, where his family and the lawyer were not allowed to visit him. In early September, as the presidential election campaign neared, he was conditionally freed without any legal formalities.

Two journalists arrested

Mohammed Abdelhai Ould Memine, correspondent for the pan-Arab satellite TV station Al-Arabiya, was arrested on 1 August 2003 while covering a demonstration by wives of jailed Islamists. His camera and video-cassettes were seized, but only the camera was returned the next day.

El-Khalil Ould Jdoud, editor of Sahara Media, the country's main electronic media, and Marie-France Olphand, correspondent of the French Radio France International (RFI), along with several dozen wives protesting against the jailing of their husbands since early May, were arrested in Nouakchott on 3 August and detained for an hour. No official explanation was given.

Harassment and obstruction

The interior ministry banned the printing of the 13 January 2003 issue of the weekly Sahafa under article 11 of the press law. Editor Mohammed Mahmud Ould Bacar said this was probably because it contained a report on the opposition, especially the French-based Conscience et Résistance (Awareness and Resistance) party.

Distribution of the daily Nouakchott info was banned on 23 January by the interior ministry. Editor Isselmou Ould Moustapha said it was probably because of an article about the governor of the central bank.

The authorities ordered the Islamist weekly Arraya to close on 1 June. It had already been told to in early May after about 30 people were arrested – including opposition figures Sid'Amar Ould Cheikhna and Jamil Mansour, who were accused of inciting violence – in a crackdown on Islamists. Mansour was freed at the time of an attempted military coup on 8 June, fled the country and sought political asylum in Belgium.

Fearing arrest, the paper's editor, Ahmedou Ould Mohamedou (known as Ould Wedi'a), and its managing director, Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed (Ould Seyidi), also fled to Belgium in mid-July. Editor Mohamedou had in late May criticised the order to close the paper as "arbitrary" and said the interior ministry had accused it of undermining the authorities and encouraging "intolerance." Another Arraya journalist, Mohammed Ould Ghoulam, who was being sought by police, went into hiding.

The third issue of the Arabic-language weekly Chiraa was seized in mid-June without any reason given.

Distribution of issue 25 of the independent fortnightly Le Rénovateur was banned on 24 July and publisher Cheikh Tijane Dia said it was probably because of an article about the fall in the black market value of the national currency, the ouguiya.

Police investigators without a warrant searched the home of journalist Ahmed Salem Boukhary, correspondent for several foreign media, on 2 August, looking for a suspected Islamist on the run.

Ministry officials seized issue 406 of the weekly Calame on 20 August under article 11 of the press law, apparently because it carried an interview with opposition figure Ahmed Ould Daddah. The weekly, founded in 1994, has been seized more than 30 times and was closed by the ministry for three months in 1999.

The interior ministry ordered the seizure on 23 September of issue 80 of the Arabic-language paper Essahifa.

The ministry seized four weeklies – Calame, Le Journal du Jeudi, Le Sahara and Essahifa – between 12 and 18 October, refusing to allow them to appear.

Several dozen journalists from privately-owned publications demonstrated on 21 October in front of the interior ministry against censorship and the routine use of article 11 and demanded proper application of the "frequently violated" rule about prior delivery of issues to the ministry, that if a ban has not been formally ordered 24 hours later, it can be assumed publication is allowed.

The ministry yielded to the demonstrators the next day and reauthorised distribution of Calame, the Journal du Jeudi and Essahifa after holding them up for printing ads for presidential candidate Ahmed Ould Daddah before the official 22 October start of the campaign. Calame's business manager, Ahmed Ould Cheikh, said the ministry's silence had suggested the paper would be censored.

Police tried to snatch the camera of Anne Roy, of the French daily paper Libération, on 3 November as she took pictures of police searching the home of presidential candidate Ould Haidallah.

Nouakchott University lecturer Abdessalam Ould Horma was arrested on 23 November on his returned from Qatar, where he taken part in a programme about Iraq on the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera. His lawyer said it was because he had expressed support for Iraq's Baath Party against the US invasion. He was freed three days later.

Distribution of the French fortnightly Afrique Education was stopped on 27 November and managing editor Pual Dregda said it was probably because of an editorial in its 16-30 November issue calling the regime "pro-slavery.


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